Fool’s gold standard
An A-level examiner on how the content, criteria and assessment methods of today's A-levels sell students short.
‘Only the ignorant and middle-aged believe that the A-levels I took this year are easier’, says disgruntled pupil Ben Saunders (1).
No doubt the UK education standards minister David Miliband would agree. For him, this year’s record pass rate of 96 per cent, with an astonishing 22.4 per cent obtaining ‘A’ grades, is proof of New Labour’s ‘education revolution’ (2). It’s certainly true that New Labour helped to alter what A-levels have become – but unfortunately this has been to lower rather than raise standards. As someone who is approaching middle age, then perhaps I would say that. But I don’t think I’m ignorant or ‘out of touch’ on the subject.
Nearly 20 years ago I studied A-levels in English literature/language, history and sociology at a local FE college in the West Midlands. In recent years I’ve been teaching both A-level sociology, and government and politics, at a variety of inner London FE colleges. I’m also an A2 government and politics examiner for the examination board Edexcel. David Miliband blithely suggests it’s ‘a myth’ that A-levels are getting easier, but from my experience it’s the unavoidable and uncomfortable truth.
When I began teaching the new AS/A2 levels two years ago, it was immediately noticeable just how emasculated syllabus content had become. Take sociology. The old A-levels consisted of studying around 12 sociological topics (such as crime and deviance, religion, and education) over two academic years. The new AS/A2 levels take in around six topics (or modules) over the same period (though if you take into consideration that research methods is covered in both years, it is less than that).
The family or education are not covered in any more depth. They are simply stretched over a much longer period. Whereas, say, the crime and deviance topic was previously covered over about nine weeks, now it’s covered over nine months. You have only to compare the flimsy sociology textbooks of today with yesterday’s tomes to realise that something’s wrong. This hasn’t gone unnoticed with many of my students either. They actually found sociology at GCSE level (which in structure resembles the old A-level) more challenging and more interesting than the threadbare AS sociology.
Defenders of the new A-level point to the ‘pressures’ of doing coursework. But as canny students appreciate, submitting a piece of coursework can be preferable to the genuine pressures of sitting exams. They also know that they are more likely to achieve a higher grade by doing coursework than if they are assessed by examination alone.
Some argue that having to take AS exams at the end of the first year puts today’s students under pressures that would be unimaginable before. I’m not so sure. By modularisng the syllabus and narrowing down the content, students today don’t have to know anywhere near as much.
When I studied A-level history, which covered European social and economic history from the 1800s through to the end of the Second World War, we would revise two years’ worth of notes for the exam. Classnotes alone would probably only guarantee a pass – to stand a chance of a higher grade you needed to read books and become well-versed on different historical perspectives. The final assessment came by answering six essay questions over two three-hour exams.
Today’s history A-level is very different. There is a new emphasis on textual analysis, with short answer questions and coursework replacing the old format. Even the essay questions on the A2 papers don’t require quite as much length and depth as the old exam. A history teacher colleague of mine sees the new A-level as a series of mini-hurdles compared to the high jump of old. Examiners also have more ‘opportunities’ to reward today’s candidates than they did before.
Some history-teaching colleagues argue that the new exam is ‘different rather than outright easier’, but nobody would argue that the two exams are the same. As one colleague put it: ‘you’re only doing half an A-level.’
Indeed this is true. The new AS-level was introduced as a bridge between GCSEs and A-levels since the original gap was considered ‘too large’. Yet the new A2 exams don’t demand as much intensive revision as before either. With the political theories module that I mark, students can concentrate on a handful of key topics, such as feminism; Marxism, anarchism or fascism, with the full expectation that questions on them will be on the exam paper. There was never that degree of certainty with the old A-level.
This helps explain why so many students are achieving ‘A’ grades compared to 10 or 20 years ago. Out of some 450 exam papers I marked this summer, a good 20 per cent were of an ‘A’ grade. By the criteria and standardisation of the examination board, those candidates fully deserve their ‘A’ grades. But nobody, least of all the government, should try to fool themselves or students that the new A-level means the same.
A-levels were rightly seen as the ‘gold standard’ because they put students under pressure. So much so that some people even argued that passing three A-levels was trickier than passing a degree. It’s because such tough demands were seen as ‘unfair’ that New Labour introduced the modularised A-levels. Above all, there was a patronising assumption that working-class kids couldn’t handle such a demanding syllabus, which should be watered down accordingly. In the past ambitious working-class students relished the opportunity to be judged on their own merits and abilities. Winning a place at a good university was seen as a price worth paying for two years of study. Today’s education system doesn’t offer the same high standards.
The old A-levels weren’t perfect and needed overhauling. But there’s a difference between updating the syllabus and emasculating it. Whether they are judged by the content, the criteria or the assessment, the new A-levels just aren’t in the same league.
Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.
(1) A-level critics are out of touch, Guardian, 25 August 2004
(2) Minister accuses A-level critics of insulting children, Evening Standard, 17 August 2004
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